A School Choice Bill That Doesn’t Offer True Choice

Poor African-American kids would benefit, but no one else

And so it begins. The first challenge to Governor Tom Corbett is upon him. Surprisingly, it’s not from public sector unions, trial lawyers or natural gas opponents, but from within his own party.

It’s a challenge that, if handled the right way, would send a message that the Corbett Administration will turn Business As Usual on its head. If not, the GOP caucus could factionalize, in turn jeopardizing a host of other tough issues on the Governor’s agenda.

And it all revolves around misguided school choice legislation that would do more harm than good.

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This being School Choice Week, it’s ironic that the Pennsylvania Senate choice bill — introduced with much hoopla — would neither improve schools nor offer true choice. Instead, it is legislation stuck in the past, once again pandering to the wrong crowd — the Black Caucus. These are the folks that some choice advocates still naively believe are necessary to court in order to achieve even a modest school choice victory. [SIGNUP]

They were wrong 15 years ago, and they’re wrong now. In fact, not only is Senate Bill 1 a bad bill, but one that will have a difficult time passing.

At issue is the program being limited to low-income families, defined as those whose income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level -– a family of four would qualify at $28,000 household income. And that’s after a three-year phase-in.

Left out of the equation is….everybody else.

Pennsylvania’s students are subpar across the board — inner city, suburb and rural. Not only can they not effectively compete with their counterparts in other states (they are 42nd in SAT scores), but, as a whole, are part of our nation’s systemic educational failure. America’s students consistently rank near the bottom in math, science and literacy when compared to their global competitors. And since this is an ever-increasing world economy, that’s a recipe for disaster.

The days of competing with Seattle and San Francisco are over; our best and brightest can barely keep up with average students in Singapore, Stockholm and Sydney.

And yet we’re supposed to believe that an extremely limited school choice program for relatively few inner city students is going to be the panacea?

Give us a break.

One of the bill’s prime sponsors, mid-state Republican Jeff Piccola, should know better. A longtime champion of education choice, Piccola has nonetheless dropped the ball on this bill, buying into the politically correct hype that having at least one black legislator on board is the only way to assure passage. So he allied himself with Democratic Senator Anthony Williams from Philadelphia.

Williams, you may recall, threw himself into last year’s governor’s race late in the game, backed by a few wealthy supporters who pumped more than $5 million into his campaign. One of Williams’ major issues was school choice.

Fine. The fact that Williams, up to that point, had never been a leader on school choice raised a few questions, but give him the benefit of the doubt that he is now a choice advocate. But to what level?

True believers realize that school choice will only work if the vast majority of students participate, something impossible with the Piccola-Williams bill.

Why should Williams care? His constituents will benefit, but the other 99 percent of Pennsylvania families will be left out in the cold. Not a tough choice for Tony.

But for the majority of legislators who will be asked to make a tough vote, look for them to start pushing back, countering with a simple message to the bill’s prime sponsors and the Governor: do it right, or not at all.

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The reason this bill is doomed is simple. As it stands now, suburban and rural legislators will be asked to incur the wrath of the teachers’ unions (who stand adamantly opposed to the accountability that school choice legislation would bring), while their constituents would not benefit in the least.

And make no mistake about the teachers’ unions. While they spent millions in last year’s election cycle, and were soundly defeated, their forced union dues make their campaign war chests virtually unlimited. Being a presidential election year, 2012 should prove more favorable to them, and they will be unleashing their fury with a vengeance.

So the suburban and rural legislators would make a difficult vote — and get the worst of both worlds. Not only would some face tough, union-backed opponents in primary and general elections, but would also feel the anger of constituents who still wouldn’t have a choice where to educate their children.

But here’s the biggest irony. The Black Caucus, all Democrats, would almost unanimously vote against the choice bill to avoid union anger. With a sly smile, they would cast that vote full-well knowing that their constituents would be the beneficiaries.

How’s that for political cowardice? But it’s what we’ve come to expect from the Black Caucus.

This is politics at its worst. Vote against a bill that would help the people in your district while hanging your selfless colleagues out to dry, undoubtedly thinning the GOP ranks in the process.

For the Republicans to agree would be an act of monumental stupidity.

There’s another reality that makes this bill almost obsolete, even if it does pass. Because comprehensive school choice wasn’t passed in 1995, a number of nonpublic schools have since closed, making the options for the low-income families that much more limited. So we would blow another three years on a worthless bill that would realize no significant gains in educational improvement.

Here’s a newsflash for those not familiar with Pennsylvania’s precipitous decline: we can’t afford to twiddle our thumbs for three more years, pretending that the inner city schools are improving, while in reality we fall that much further behind the competition.

The Black Caucus isn’t needed to pass statewide school choice; political will is. While the education of our children should never be a partisan issue, if you can’t pass school choice with sizable Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a friendly Governor, you’re never going to.

No matter how principled a lawmaker, there are virtually none who should make this vote in the name of Party unity with the upside so small and the downside so large — potentially large enough to cost them their seat and hurt all Pennsylvanians.

Undeniably, the current system has failed. But the good news is that school choice works. The tragedy will be if we punt away the best opportunity in Pennsylvania history to turn the state around. If we do, you might as well start converting your dollars into Chinese yuan.

Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, “Freindly Fire,” hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller “Catastrophe.” Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX.  He can be reached at [email protected]